By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK, Jan. 18 (Reuters) – If your child happens to attend a public school in Portland, Dallas, Los Angeles or Oakland and is attending a personal finance workshop in the coming months, ask them if they’ve seen one of the founders of the program.
If he’s 6 feet 10 inches tall, weighs over 300 pounds, and looks like a National Football League defensive tackle, that’s because he is one.
That would be Ndamukong Suh, 36, an American football star who terrifies opponents’ hearts. As much as Suh enjoys sacking quarterbacks and tackling running backs — his Philadelphia Eagles are on a playoff push in hopes of reaching the Super Bowl — there’s something else he enjoys just as much: teaching kids about financial literacy.
“They need to understand how to take care of their finances,” says Suh, whose Suh Family Foundation, along with wife Katya, is partnering with the firm Intuit Inc to bring the personal finance curriculum to schools across the United States. “Especially in marginalized communities, this can be a difficult conversation, so I want to shed some light on it.”
Some NFL players and other highly paid professional athletes run into money problems after their playing career ends. Indeed, when young players are suddenly making millions of dollars, without much financial education, in the midst of an expensive lifestyle, with brokers and managers and entourages all taking their share – the money can be gone much faster than one might think.
The 36-year-old Suh, on the other hand, has been mapping his life after football for years. His knowledge of money goes back to his childhood in Portland, Oregon, and his parents – his mother was a teacher, his father was an engineer. As a child, he went to job sites with his father, doing odd jobs like sweeping and cleaning, while his mother gave him $10 or $20 to mow neighborhood lawns.
In fact, it was his mother who first introduced him to the importance of credit scores, adding him as an authorized user to one of her cards, building his own record.
“When you get to the NFL, one of the first things they do is help you get your credit up — and my score was almost 800,” said Suh, an exceptional credit scorer. “It was all thanks to the lessons my mother gave me.”
It’s a long way from those early beginnings to his current job, where his biggest contract averaged more than $19 million a year, according to sports finance site Spotrac.
But Suh fell into a typical money trap early in his career and spent more than he should have.
“Most athletes make the mistake of looking around the locker room and comparing themselves to other guys,” Suh said. “You see veterans with their Mercedes and end up living beyond your means. Personally, I’ve made the mistake of going to nightclubs and spending $25,000 to $50,000, instead of taking that money and investing it.”
After those missteps, he began to think more about building wealth for his family, and—knowing that in the NFL, “your career could be over in a heartbeat”—has worked diligently to build his own empire.
That included starting his own real estate development company, with multiple completed and more ongoing projects. He also manages an investment portfolio under his House of Spears Management, owns several restaurants, and is a fan of private equity, including working with famed VCs Andreessen Horowitz.
His business decisions and his charitable work – everything from providing scholarships to the University of Nebraska, his alma mater, to helping domestic violence victims in Tampa – are made with the help of his wife.
“I’d say she’s more risk averse than I am,” Suh said with a laugh. “She pulls me back on some investments and says, ‘Hey, maybe we should wait and see.'”
His financial literacy curriculum for kids covers all the basics: spending, saving, taxing, budgeting, and investing. It is his hope that the money smarts initiative with Intuit will go global beyond the current target cities.
Suh’s number one piece of advice for kids?
“Keep it simple: spend only what you need and save the rest,” he said. “Learn to create and grow generational wealth, which is what I try to do for my twin baby boys. And don’t be afraid to ask for help or seek mentorship. As my mother always taught me, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask questions – and there are no stupid questions.'” (Edit by Lauren Young and Will Dunham Follow us @ReutersMoney)